Firefighters race to save what’s left of Notre Dame Cathedral as French President declares ‘the worst has been avoided’

(CNN) — Parisians raised their voices in song Monday night outside Notre Dame Cathedral as firefighters battled a massive blaze threatening one of France’s most revered historic sites.

The fire burned for several hours Monday, causing the collapse of the cathedral’s iconic spire and the destruction of its roof structure, which dated back to the 13th century.

Consumed by flames, the spire leaned to one side and fell onto the burning roof as horrified onlookers watched.

By late Monday night, the fire had weakened and the cathedral’s two towers were safe, said Laurent Nunez, secretary to the interior minister.

French President Emmanuel Macron praised firefighters for saving the cathedral’s iconic facade and towers. “Thanks to their bravery, the worst has been avoided.”

Yet he lamented the damage already done to “the cathedral of all French people,” and pledged to launch an international fundraising campaign to rebuild the cathedral.

“Notre Dame is our history, it’s our literature, it’s our imagery. It’s the place where we live our greatest moments, from wars to pandemics to liberations,” he said.

“This history is ours. And it burns. It burns and I know the sadness so many of our fellow French feel.”

At least one firefighter injured

For much of the day, flames and thick plumes of smoke billowed from the cathedral, including the bell tower and the spire. Rescue workers rushed to evacuate artworks.

It was not immediately known what caused the fire. The cathedral is surrounded by scaffolding amid construction work. Paris Fire Brigade Commander General Jean-Claude Gallet said the initial call to emergency services notified authorities of a fire in the attic of the cathedral.

About 400 firefighters were mobilized to deal with the blaze, the French Interior Ministry said. Firetrucks had difficulty accessing the scene, located on an island in Paris, amid the daily afternoon rush hour. Police urged the public to avoid the area.

Firefighters atop cherry-picker cranes sprayed water onto the church in an attempt to calm the flames.

One firefighter was seriously injured, Gallet said.

The entire wooden interior of Notre Dame Cathedral has been lost

A “forest” of wooden latticework inside Notre Dame Cathedral fueled the fire that consumed the iconic church.

The medieval roof structure “has been lost,” according to Monsignor Patrick Chauvet, the rector of the cathedral.

The cathedral’s wooden frame, which primarily consisted of oak, contains beams that date as far back as the first frame built for the cathedral. That frame featured trees cut down between 1160 and 1170, forming one of the oldest parts of the structure.

Most of the current frame dates from the year 1220, according to the church’s website. The modern frame is the second frame, and reflects adjustments made early in the cathedral’s construction process.

The prevailing Gothic style called for high vaulted ceilings. To accommodate this, the cathedral’s plans required tall, sturdy oaks from a nearby forest.

To kick off the project, workers cleared 21 hectares of oak. Each beam of the intricate wooden cross-work was drawn from a different tree: estimated at 13,000 trees in total. To reach the heights the carpenters needed to build the structure, those trees would likely have been 300 or 400 years old, meaning they would have sprouted out of the ground in the eighth or ninth centuries.

The beams formed one of the oldest structures in Paris.

The dimensions of the framework are soaring: 100 meters long and 10 meters high. At the nave of the church, the frame is 13 meters wide, and at the transept it’s 10 meters high, the church’s website says.

During the Middle Ages, the carpenters first built the frame on the ground to get the dimensions and structure right. Then workers would have disassembled the frame, hoisting it up with lifting gear to the ceiling, where it would have been reassembled. Once in place, the beams extended toward the heavens at steep 55-degree angles.

The wood frame structure supported a roof, made of lead, that weighed 210 tons. The lead frame had the advantage of being fire-resistant, according to the National Library of France. But the wood that supported that lead roof is what burned.

‘Madness’

The fire, just days before Easter, was met with horror by Parisians and tourists.

Thibaud Binétruy, who lives in Paris, said he saw the smoke while walking home with a colleague and was gripped by the sight.

“When the spire fell, the crowd reacted with ‘ohhh’ and ‘ahh,’ but I guess most of them were just shocked silently,” Binétruy said. “It’s awful to see such a symbol disappearing in front of you. It’s been there for so many years and in a few minutes half of it disappeared … crazy. Paris without Notre Dame, madness.”

Patryk Bukalski was at a cafe near the cathedral when he started smelling smoke.

“A bartender said the Notre Dame is on fire, so I left and saw this horrible picture,” he said over Instagram.

He said people are standing outside, watching and crying.

“It’s horrible. It’s a symbol of Paris,” Bukalski said. “It’s just sad. I don’t know what more to say.”

Another witness, Anne Marie, spoke with tears in her eyes.

“In Paris, it’s a monumental symbol — every person with different religions are really moved and saddened,” she said. “Paris without the cathedral is not Paris anymore.”

The Vatican said the Holy See learned with “shock and sadness the news of the terrible fire that has devastated the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, symbol of Christianity, in France and in the world.”

“We express our closeness to the French Catholic and to the people of Paris. We pray for the firefighters and for all those who are doing everything possible to face this dramatic situation,” the Vatican said.

A symbol of France

Notre Dame’s foundation stone was laid in 1163 by Pope Alexander III, and the cathedral was completed in the 13th century. Today, with its towers, spire, flying buttresses and stained glass, Notre Dame is considered a feat of architecture as well as a major religious and cultural symbol of France.

Located in Île de la Cité, a small island in the middle of the city, the cathedral is one of Paris’ most popular attractions, drawing an estimated 13 million visitors a year.

Even as it fell into disrepair over the centuries, it was the site of Napoleon Bonaparte’s coronation as emperor in 1804. The central spire was built in the 19th century amid a broad restoration effort, partly buoyed by the success of Victor Hugo’s novel “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” in 1831.

The cathedral also houses the grand organ, one of the world’s most famous musical instruments, as well as the Crown of Thorns, a relic of the passion of Christ.

Presiden Macron postponed a planned speech Monday night because of the Notre Dame fire, a spokesperson for the Elysee Palace said.

“Notre Dame of Paris in flames. Emotion for a whole nation. Thoughts for all Catholics and for all French. Like all our countrymen, I’m sad tonight to see this part of us burn,” Macron said on Twitter.

Macron arrived at the scene, accompanied by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and first lady Brigitte Macron, as well as the Paris prosecutor, who has opened an investigation into the fire.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Notre Dame “is not only a majestic church, it is also a world treasure,” he said.

“Noble in architecture and art, it has long been a symbol of the transcendent human spirit as well as our longing for God,” he said.

US President Donald Trump said it was a “terrible, terrible fire” and lamented the damage done to the historic cathedral.

“That’s beyond countries, that’s beyond anything,” he said. “It’s a part of our culture.”

Why Notre Dame Cathedral is so important to Catholics worldwide

This week is Holy Week, when millions of Western Christians mark the death and resurrection of Jesus. Under normal circumstances, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris would have been preparing to display its holy relics to the faithful on Good Friday.

But as fire engulfed the sacred site on Monday, Catholics across the world reacted in horror and disbelief, particularly when the cathedral’s iconic spire toppled amid the flames.

For generations, Notre Dame has been a place of pilgrimage and prayer, and, even as religion in France has declined for decades, it remained the beating heart of French Catholicism, open every day for Mass.

“I can’t even look at it,” the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit writer based in New York, said of the televised images of flames devouring the cathedral’s iconic Gothic architecture.

“Outside of St. Peter’s Basilica (in Vatican City) I don’t think there’s a more iconic church for Catholics. I don’t think there are any Catholics who visit Paris and don’t pray or go to Mass at Notre Dame.”

For Martin, as for other Catholics, it was difficult not to see several layers of symbolism in the flames: The fire broke out during Holy Week, the most sacred time on the Christian calendar, at a time when the Catholic Church worldwide is engulfed in controversy over the abuse of children, and when France has seen months of public anger over rising fuel prices.

Martin wasn’t alone in his grief. As news of the fire spread Monday, many prominent Catholics expressed deep sadness.

“I just went next door to our own beloved Cathedral, Saint Patrick’s, to ask the intercession of Notre Dame, our Lady, for the Cathedral at the heart of Paris, and of civilization, now in flames!” Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York tweeted. “God preserve this splendid house of prayer, and protect those battling the blaze.”

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called the fire “shocking” and saddening. But, like many Catholics, DiNardo connected the heartbreaking news to the coming Easter holy day.

“We are a people of hope and of the resurrection, and as devastating as this fire is, I know that the faith and love embodied by this magnificent Cathedral will grow stronger in the hearts of all Christians.”

DiNardo said Notre Dame is more than the sum of its tumultuous history. The cathedral, he said, “has long been a symbol of the transcendent human spirit as well as our longing for God.”

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster in England, called the cathedral “the heart of the faith” in Europe.

“Who is not deeply moved at the sight of this great Cathedral in flames?” Nichols tweeted. For the people of Paris this is a disaster that touches their very soul.”

Diocese of Birmingham issues a response

“Bishop Robert J Baker of the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama asks for the prayers of the people of the Diocese of Birmingham and of northern Alabama, for the Archbishop and the people of Paris, France, on the devastating destruction of their beautiful cathedral. Our hopes are that many of the artistic treasures in this cathedral have been rescued for the benefit of future generations. We are grateful that no lives were lost in the midst of this terrible tragedy. This is a world treasure of historic significance. We are hopeful that all people of good will rally in support of the Archdiocese of Paris by their faith and prayers and in their generous support of the restoration of this magnificent cathedral.”

Good Friday

Notre Dame is not a parish church, meaning that it does not have a regular body of worshippers who “belong” to the church. But it is still the home church of Paris’ Archbishop Michel Aupetit and draws Catholics for vespers (evening prayers) Masses and the Sacrament of Reconciliation, also known as Penance.

And every year during Holy Week, Notre Dame unveils some of the most coveted relics in Christendom. Among them is the Holy Crown, believed by many to be from the crown of thorns placed on the head of Jesus, and which the cathedral calls its “the most precious and most venerated relic.” Catholics have prayed with the Holy Crown for more than 16 centuries, according to the cathedral.

Notre Dame also counts among its treasures two other relics connected to Holy Week: a fragment of the Wood of the Cross, believed by many to be a part of the “true cross” on which Jesus was crucified; and one of the nails that the Romans used to crucify Jesus.

That nail comes from the Holy Sepulcher, the place where Jesus was buried in Jerusalem, according to Notre Dame. Christians in Jerusalem gave the relic to the Emperor Charlemagne in 799, and it subsequently became a powerful object of veneration for generations of French Catholics.

During the French Revolution, when French secularists destroyed many iconic Catholic pieces of history and art, it was saved and given to the archbishop of Paris, according to the cathedral.

On Monday, as firefighters battled flames at Notre Dame, the safety of the relics was unknown.

As the flames rage, Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris, whose home church is the cathedral, issued a plea for his priests to pray.

“The firefighters of Paris are still fighting to save the towers of Notre-Dame de Paris. The frame, the roof, and the spire are consumed. Let us pray. If you wish, you can ring the bells of your churches to invite prayer.”

Here are some of the reasons why the medieval cathedral is so iconic:

  • The cathedral is more than 850 years old. It celebrated that milestone in 2013, according to its website.
  • It took 182 years to build — construction began in the 12th century and was completed in the 13th century, according to Fodor’s Travel.
  • It can hold more than 6,000 worshipers, according to Lonely Planet.
  • England’s King Henry VI was crowned King of France in the cathedral, and Napoleon I was coronated there by Pope Pius VII, according to Lonely Planet.
  • The cathedral’s central spire was added during a restoration in the 19th century, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. The restoration was partly buoyed by the success of Victor Hugo’s novel “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” in 1831.
  • The cathedral is known for its enormous stained glass windows, among other remarkable architectural details.
  • Notre Dame was badly damaged during the French Revolution. It was restored by architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century, according to Fodor’s Travel.
  • Tourists flock there. “It is indeed one of the most incredibly beautiful and important medieval cathedrals in the world,” Yaron Yarimi, a New York-based travel agent and Paris expert, said an email to CNN. “It is also among the five most requested sites to be visited when we organize travel to Paris for our clients.” Yarimi said he was saddened by the fire. “What a tragedy unfolding right in front of our own eyes!”
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